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Charles Elachi directs the Pasadena-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA’s center for unmanned space exploration. JPL pioneered rocket propulsion during World War II but is best known for its space telescopes and Mars rovers. Last August, more than 15 million people watched the landing of the fourth Mars rover, Curiosity, in real time.

Do you think of yourself as a latter-day pioneer?

There’s no question about that. Like any explorer, you feel great satisfaction and pride when you discover new things, and when you bring new information to the public. I’m sure that every time Lewis and Clark turned a corner on the river, they were amazed by the new flora and fauna they saw. This is the same, except it’s learning about our solar system and the universe. It is very uplifting.

Has it been hard to gain support for JPL’s unmanned missions?

There is always excitement when you personally go somewhere. Both robotic and human exploration are valued highly—this has always been the case. Robots can sometimes handle a job more effectively than a human, while humans can accomplish some jobs better than robots. Young people look at robots, in a sense, as an extension of themselves. They don’t see much difference between a human and a robot with human control. I saw with Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity and now Curiosity: People tend to humanize them, look at them like a pet exploring on our behalf.

What is JPL’s history?

It started in 1936 when a number of California Institute of Technology students were working with a professor named Theodore von Karman. They were mixing chemicals to see which one would blow up best so they could use them in rockets. The university got nervous about them blowing up a building, and asked them to go to the Arroyo Seco canyon area, a few miles away, to do tests. That led us to a lot of work during World War II building small rockets to help aircraft take off on short runways.

Should we thank the Soviets for starting the space race?

It’s true that the launch of Sputnik I in October 1957 is viewed as the start of the Space Age. But plans for launching a U.S. satellite were ongoing and Explorer 1, launched shortly after Sputnik, conducted the first science studies in space— it discovered the Van Allen Belt. Even in the absence of Sputnik, the United States would have proceeded in space exploration, but maybe at a different pace.

What are your favorite JPL missions?

I love all of them like I love my daughters—equally. The one that stands out was the first mission I was involved with: Shuttle Imaging Radar. In 1981, a NASA shuttle carried a radar instrument built by JPL that mapped Earth. One of the big things that came from it was that we mapped subsurface drainage channels in Egypt and Saudi Arabia that led to the discovery of the lost city of Ubar. It allowed us to do archaeology on sites now buried below the surface.

What about deep space probes?

Voyager I and Voyager II have been in space for roughly 35 years. They’ve survived because each has a nuclear power source. The big science is that they are reaching the edge of our solar system. The scientific measurements will give us information about what happens when you move from our solar system influence to the interstellar medium, which is the material between the different stars.

What have we learned about other galaxies?

Fifteen years ago people said the only solar system we know about is our own. Over the last decade, first by ground observation and now from a telescope called Kepler, we’re finding planetary systems are very common. We’ve found almost 2,600 planets around other stars. The next step, as part of NASA’s Origins program, is to take pictures of these planets. With a picture we can determine a planet’s composition, whether or not it has oxygen or water, its temperature, and whether the temperature changes between day and night, or is constant.

Will we ever know our origins?

Imagine that about 13 billion years ago, there was a big bang and a bunch of particles were formed. That led to the formation of stars, galaxies and planets and then to the formation of life. We want to write the book on how that all happened. That’s the theme of our scientific exploration. How did these particles form planets and stars? How did it lead to organic material and life? If we understand how we got here, it could give us insight into what will happen in the future to our planet.

Are there trickle-down, practical benefits from JPL’s work?

Absolutely. I keep reminding people that the code and the technology used in cellphones was developed 30 years ago to communicate with our spacecraft. The charge-coupling device and focal plane on your cellphone camera were developed many years ago at JPL for our telescopes. The same with GPS, which was developed by the Air Force. You have research done by the government to expand knowledge and develop technology, and then entrepreneurs pick up that technology and use it to improve our day-to day-life.

What are the intangible benefits?

The spirit of exploration has been part of the American psyche going back to the founding of our nation. It’s part of our quest to gain new knowledge through scientific research, which is the foundation of our economic strength. The cost of the Curiosity mission is about $7 per American—less than the cost of an average movie ticket—with a payoff not only in new scientific knowledge but also technological advances in robotics, chemical analysis and instruments. After the Curiosity landing I got thousands of emails, and every one of them had the word “inspirational” in it, and said, “We are proud to be American.” We need things that lift our spirit and are an inspiration for the next generation.


Originally published in the February 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.